Chef Suken is a classically trained chef (formerly of the Ritz Carlton-Osaka) and chef-consultant whose success as an executive chef in Asia led to a lucrative and successful international career as a chef-consultant (designing restaurant business models from every angle, from the menu to the supply chain). His success in that career enables him to run Cafe Beautiful as a kind of restaurant utopia built on a desire to provide an extraordinary, highly personal, decadent, total dining experience.
He told me and my gentleman friend (who was taking me out for my birthday) that he was inspired to do this because of his own experience trying to find a perfect dining experience to share with his wife - he didn't like the long waits and depersonalized atmosphere they experienced in restaurants. Chef Suken decided to move to Lawrence, Kansas because he wanted to learn English (he didn't know any before he moved here) and he was attracted to the idea of starting his American career in the Midwest - he wanted to begin his learning process somewhere he could find basic, simple American culture and life away from the syncretic bustle of cities. Lawrence is a lovely town, and he and his wife enjoy living there for some months out of the year depending on his consulting schedule. When he is in town, he runs Cafe Beautiful out of his eclectic, comfortable, candle-lit downtown loft apartment. Obviously calling ahead and making reservations are completely essential. There are two tables. Suken does all of the cooking, serving (and even dishwashing, he told us) and spends as much time with diners as they would like, from giving exquisite detail about every dish as he serves it, to discussing his philosophy of life and food and cooking. The other table being served the evening that we went finished earlier, and Suken encouraged us to have a nice slow dance with each other between courses while he cooked (he plays mellow, romantic music - I think we were mostly hearing Sinatra and Mel Torme, it was very sweet). Chef Suken has such a romantic, passionate spirit, and he seems to really delight in giving people an intimate, exceptional dining experience and memory that they can always treasure together. So totally sweet - this was an extraordinary experience!
Since this is a restaurant review, I should talk about the food too, right? It's amazing, of course. Just incredible. A brief word on the format - Cafe Beautiful is a prix fixe menu only, chef's choice, ranging from 70 (vegetarian) to 85 (fish)-110 (fish and meat) per person. This is the general price range, and you are getting at least 8 full courses, making it an exceptional value. Suken runs Cafe Beautiful as a labor of love - it is most definitely not the profit engine in his life, and his pricing makes a meal which is basically an evening with a private world-class chef accessible to everyone. I am sure I would have gone even as a poor undergrad when I was at KU if he had been there then - we would have been living on ramen with veg for two weeks before to afford a $100 meal, but it would have been doable and totally worth it. There is no liquor license so you can bring your own wine or sake, with no uncorking or bottle fee. It is my understanding that the menu doesn't change much and the first visit is one he has carefully designed. He told us that the next time we came, he would make something different for us, we would try other dishes.
We started with a refreshing iced tea, very cold, which he followed with two very hot steamed hand towels; then the meal began in earnest. I think there were eight courses, and we were at table for nearly two and a half hours. We started with an ethereal custard baked into a tiny gourd with a butterflied shrimp and a scallop embedded in the delicate, steamy egg custard. There was a fruit salad with a ginger soy dressing - the combination of the sweet and the salty was a revelation. Everything on the plate was beautifully cut and composed. There were several sushi dishes - the most extraordinary was a gorgeous rose made out of perfectly cut petals of white tuna sashimi, nestled into a rose bowl made of ice. The bottom of the rose bowl held a citrus soy sorbet for dipping the sashimi. Paper-thin slices of lemon floated delicately on top of the sauce pooled around the ice bowl. When we had finished that course, the ice bowls were returned to the table for us to continue marveling at (I was very taken with them), nestled in curved plates and now holding candles. There was a salmon filet - my gentleman said it was cut from the salmon belly, and wrapped with that rich, thin layer of belly fat to its interior, so it would melt into the pear confit which had also been spread on it. The salmon was then rolled into an iris-like shape, and broiled til perfectly cooked, with the caramelized, salty goodness of the salmon and pear perfectly harmonized. The salmon is served with a salad of endive or rocket with apple and a black truffle vinaigrette - I am generally not a fan of truffle, but this was different. This was truffle done with a light, elegant touch instead of an ostentatious whammy, and it was amazing. The only other thing I've ever enjoyed as much with a truffle note was a Pierre Herme macaron made with dark chocolate and black truffle oil. I think perhaps truffle needs a little bitterness next to it to really shine. There was a salad of vegetables in an ethereal creamy rice vinegar sauce, composed of a chiffonade of vegetables lightly piled into a tall, thinly walled, perfectly crisp tube of chilled cucumber. There was a rice-course maki topped with finely grated and toasted coconut with yet more extraordinary sauces. There was a tuna topped with a paste of miso and black pepper, served with a basil-wasabi sauce. For dessert there was a green tea sorbet, house-made with rice milk and three kinds of honey - a honey gelee, a shimmer of dried honey powder, and a little pane of honeyed agar in a frame of aloe leaf. I feel like I'm leaving a couple of courses out! I wish I could find my copy of the menu, which he gave us as we were leaving. The bottom line really is that his technique is perfect, and his sauces are pure artistry. It's really a testament to Lawrence that it has attracted and kept someone like Chef Suken as one of its cultural riches.
There is no dress code and I'm sure Suken would say that you should come however you're happiest and most comfortable. The restaurant is unmarked and there is no signage; its present closest neighbor (across the hall) is a hookah bar (you can't smell it inside the restaurant, don't worry) and Lebanese grocery, so if you're wondering about that or think you're lost, you're not. Just go up the tall flight of stairs (this restau is probably not to be considered handicap-accessible) with all the art students and hipsters trailing in and out, cut to your right when you get to the top, and go for the otherwise unmarked door with the Asian decor in the corner. That's where you're headed. One of the tables has a great view of Mass Ave. If there is a band playing next door the night you're dining, you will hear it! So if it's very important to you that the sound of nightlife not intrude on your evening you might want to check their schedule before booking your table. I'm pretty sure Cafe Beautiful only books on Fridays and Saturdays, and there are two flights - one at 6, and one at 8 - and two tables.
Have a wonderful time!
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.